What’s it like to run an Ultra-Marathon, and how do you motivate yourself to finish any great challenge?
Today’s post will be a little different. In 2014, the year I turned 50, I somehow came to the notion that I should celebrate a half-century of life by trying to run 50 miles in one day. This is the story of that experience, what it was like on race day, and some of the lessons learned about perseverance as a result.
And while this post talks about a running experience, I think the takeaways are equally applicable to just about any major undertaking you might find yourself involved in. Whatever it is that you are getting ready to do, the things that helped me get to the finish line can also help you start smarter, last longer and finish fresher. Here’s what it was like and what I learned.
“When will this ever end?” I thought to myself as I plodded along.
Ahead of me stretched a long line of racers extending to the visible horizon. The sun was hidden behind the ridge line in the far distance. The condensed breath of the runners gave a wispy surreal-ness to the frigid air. My toes had lost feeling and my fingertips were starting to grow numb. I had already exhausted the energy gels I had that I planned to use at this point in the race.
There was nothing left to do but keep moving forward. A small town intersection slowly came into view, and then as we drew closer, I began to hear the familiar refrain of someone singing the National Anthem over the PA system.
At last we had made it: we were at the starting line of the JFK 50-Mile Trail Race.
It Seemed Like a Good Idea…
Back in May of 2014, sometime during the long two-day drive home from racing in the Ironman Texas triathlon, a crazy idea formed in my head. I had posted a pretty good marathon time in that race (for me). I was also going to turn 50 later that year.
As I was still riding that ‘post-goal achievement high’ it was only natural to combine those two points and conclude that it would be fun to do a 50-mile run to celebrate my 50th birthday in November.
After Ironman, how hard could it be? Back home looking for events on the internet, I discovered the JFK-50 was to be held on the 22nd of November in Boonsboro, Maryland, only 90 minutes’ drive away. The coincidence of date, proximity and open race slots was too much to accept as anything other than a clear sign that I should do it.
Clearly this was meant to be. I sent in my registration.
Fast forward to November. I had done two other long races, another Ironman and a stand-alone marathon. Training had gone well, but in both races the run finish had not been pretty. I was having some doubts about being able to do 50 miles. It was only three days before the race, coming off a 10 mile trail run that had almost felt “easy” that I fully committed to giving it a shot.
Let’s Do This!
So this was the 52nd annual running of the JFK-50, the oldest continuously run ultramarathon in the United States. It was originally a military race started in 1962 during the rapid growth of the U.S. Army Special Forces. The idea at the time was that elite Soldiers should be able to cover 50 miles cross country on foot in one day as a standard of performance. Since then, increasing numbers of people have been attracted to this challenge. On race day this year nearly 1,000 people had signed up.
The check-in and pre-race brief were held in the Boonsboro High School gym to keep us out of the cold. Then we followed a guide for over half a mile to the start line in the middle of the town. The 18 degrees temps and light breeze had us all shivering. At least I had on hat, gloves, three layers including a wind breaker on top and lightweight, loose fitting sweat pants on my legs. Many wore shorts, or T-shirts; some had donned plastic garbage bags or silver emergency blankets in the effort to stay warm.
Just getting to the start line seemed to be an endurance test of its own. We all just wanted to get running.
Starting Gun and Strategy
The starting gun finally went off, and our little mob moved forward with a sense of relief. We all knew the next five miles would be climbing, stair-stepping our way up a total of nearly 1,500 feet, the first two miles on asphalt road, then onto the Appalachian Trail (AT). Once the road tilted upward, some people began a fast walk; the steeper it got, the more who walked.
It was hard to think of this as a running race with everybody walking, but that’s what the internet gurus say to do – walk the steep parts, it’s not worth the energy to try and run them. Anyway, that fit my race strategy of taking it easy: walk any steep hills, walk for exactly one minute after every mile run, and stop about a minute at every aid station to be sure to hydrate, take in nutrition, and stretch out a little. So I was fine with walking. My ears popped three times during the ascent; we were all glad for the work since it warmed us.
From here I won’t drag you through the whole race, mile by mile. Sometimes it gets a little mentally foggy anyway. Instead I’ll just share some scenes and thoughts along the way that maybe give a flavor of what it was like.
16 Miles on the Appalachian Trail
• We come to the first aid station at the top of the ridge on the AT– I grab a Styrofoam cup of water to drink, tip it up to my face, nothing happens, look at it and realize that I need to break the layer of ice off the top before it will pour into my mouth.
• I’m finally warm and the trail has flattened out some; the rising sun is shining horizontally through the trees creating a flickering effect as we run; the sun bathes the distant hills with soft light – beautiful.
• There are long convoluted trail sections I start to think of as “rock gardens” – can’t really run through these safety; we do kind of an awkward stepping and hopping mostion, trying not to trip and fall. This goes on for at least four miles; not so fun.
• The first stumble – at a half jog, I hit one of those invisible rocks with my left foot. The next three steps forward are the kind where arms are flailing, legs are bicycling, and you are doing everything possible not to face-plant into the earth. It might have made the highlight roll on ESPN if they covered events like this. I avoid the fall, but my stubbed toe has paid a price. I stumble four more times, but none quite as spectacular as the first.
• In the ‘gardens,’ you can’t really look anywhere else but down, so I lose sense of distance and time. The only other things of interest to see are other people’s feet. Some shoes are bright, new, high tech. Others are worn with miles of use. Several people wear gaiters – fabric that covers the front laces of the shoe and up to the ankle to keep stones from going into the shoe; it seems gaiters printed with a skull and cross-bones pattern are the most prevalent design choice, even pink ones.
• One guy is wearing sandals – a flat strip of rubber covering his otherwise bare feet, a single thong coming up through his toes, wrapping around his foot. He’s probably read that book Born to Run about the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico who wear sandals and can run forever. Great book, but madness to wear sandals in these conditions, I think.
• The guy in front of me trips and falls, but he does a beautiful combat roll and pops right back up. He has the presence of mind to see if he lost any of the little bottles on his fuel belt, then starts to run again. Two of us running right behind him ask if he’s OK, and then tell him we are impressed with his performance.
• The long-awaited end of the rock section finally comes as the trail summits and turns down hill; the sun sparkles magically on the Potomac River far below. It’s a mile and a half of crazy steep switch backs down. Try hard not to fall.
• At the bottom of the switchbacks the trail lets out onto a road which is lined on both sides three deep for 150 meters with family members and supporters. It’s a tunnel of cheering humanity just wide enough for the runners to pass through. Their cheering is an outward expression of my own inner relief to be off the AT without any major injuries. It’s fun, and we feel like heroes. We get to high-five lots of hands and absorb all that positive energy as we run along.
26 Miles on the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal Towpath
• The route joins the C&O Canal towpath; it’s what the mules walked on as they dragged the canal boats from town to town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “Wow, this is easy” I think to myself. It’s flat, smooth, I can look around, and it’s a beautiful day. Small pleasures.
• The run/walk strategy seems to be working out. Even with the minute of walking every mile, I am slowly moving forward through the runners; sometimes I’ll pass and be re-passed a few times, but eventually they don’t catch up again. Patience, I remind myself.
• I run for two miles with Brian from Virginia. This is his 5th ultra, but first JFK-50. We agree it’s a beautiful day, the race is well organized, and things are going great. There’s a generally positive vibe everywhere. I lose him when he takes a walk break.
• Aid station around mile 22 – It’s November, but the sign says “Welcome to Santa’s Aid Station” – there are ornaments hanging from trees, garlands and wreaths, Christmas carols playing from a boom box somewhere. I grab a Gatorade and then get to fist-bump a fully-costumed Santa. I stretch my legs and back briefly and get underway again. (Some races encourage aid station volunteers to pick a theme for their station and decorate accordingly.)
• There’s a phantom stone in my shoe, sometimes in both of them. I stop to clear them a couple times; no rocks fall out, but the feeling doesn’t go away; sometimes they seem to migrate. It doesn’t get worse, so just had to just ignore them.
• Somewhere around mile 32 – up ahead is a guy on a beach cruiser bike dressed in full costume as the father of The Incredibles – complete with red suit, big puffy foam muscles, cape, and face mask. This must be the Superhero aid station. Mr. Incredible gets a fist bump too.
• The miles are passing by and I’m hitting 10 minute miles pretty regularly, but this is taking forever….
• A really old looking, very weathered, slightly built man overtakes me on the run. He’s wearing a pin-stripe suit coat and shorts, and looks like he was made out of bailing wire. When he gets to the aid station up ahead I hear him shouting, “Rock and Roll!!! Rock and Roll!!!” and the crowd cheers him. That guy is awesome!
• The towpath bends and winds as it follows the Potomac River upstream. Sometimes it does a broad, arching turn, doubling back on itself. Looking through the trees and across the river, I can see the bright, colorful clothes of the runners a mile or two up ahead, slowly making their way along the path, like a long, psychedelic caterpillar.
Eight Miles of Rolling Country Road
• After the flat, beautiful monotony of the towpath, the asphalt suddenly feels hard on the feet, and the road pitches up steeply for a half mile as it climbs from the river bed. I walk, and so does a guy next to me. I say to him, “I was looking forward to getting to this part, but I guess it’s ‘be careful what you wish for…’” He gives me an acknowledging chuckle-grunt, too tired to say more.
• A metaphor occurs to me out of nowhere: you know how you use a mallet to tenderize a piece of chicken? That’s what it feels like the rock gardens of the AT did to my feet. Now they’ve been baking in the oven at 350 degrees for a several hours. Also: after energy gels every 20 minutes all day, apparently I’m getting hungry for some real food…
• There’s a guy who looks like Forrest Gump when he ran across America. I had passed him on the towpath a while back; now he’s passing me. I want to shout, “Run, Forrest, Run!”
• A mile between walking breaks is getting to be too much; I start to pick target distances and then take mini-breaks of 30 seconds walking; make it to the railroad tracks, or the white house on the left.
• There are mile markers now, orange wooden panels with black numbers counting down the miles to go – 6, 5, 4…it seems to take forever to get to the next one. Good thing they didn’t count down from the beginning: only 49 miles to go….48….
• In to town, and around a corner; I thank the policemen who is holding traffic for us. He tells me the finish is right up ahead. “Thanks!”
The Finish Line
“When will this ever end?” I think to myself as I plodded along. Ahead of me stretches a long line of racers extending to the visible horizon. The sun was just disappearing behind the ridge line in the far distance. My feet were sore and I had consumed all the gels and PowerBars and Gatorade I could stomach. There was nothing left to do but keep moving forward. As we drew closer, I began to hear the sounds of an announcer calling off names of the finishers and a crowd cheering.
• A resident is standing in his driveway watching us chug by; I try to joke with him, “OK, so does the second lap start up there?” He looks at me funny and gives a laugh.
• I’m alone at the finish. I hear some tired, mildly enthusiastic cheering for this random finisher wearing race number 835 from Pennsylvania. It’s an endurance event for the supporters, too. I’ve seen many of their faces a few times at different places along the course.
• The finish chute is a simple affair: cross a line of white tape on the asphalt, someone puts a medal around my neck, someone else snips the timing chip from my left shoe. I stop a second and just look around. That’s it. Good job, self: You did it! OK, maybe I’ll get a cup of water at a table nearby.
• The grass in front of the middle school near the finish looks inviting. Think I’ll sit down. That feels good. Maybe I’ll lie down. That feels great. About four seconds elapse, when an EMT comes up, “Sir, are you OK?” That’s impressive – glad to know they are paying attention. I sit up and tell him I’m fine and glad he’s on the alert to help the runners. He shakes my hand and congratulates me.
So that’s really about it. Had a slice of cheese pizza, and a warm BBQ sandwich inside the school cafeteria. Saw the guy who ran in sandals over by the chow line; he’s clearly been here a while; I looked for bruises or blood on his feet but he was good to go; still think he’s crazy. Waited 25 minutes shivering in the cold for the shuttle bus to take us back to the start line.
On the bus I met Mark; this was his 25th time running the JFK-50; in the race program I found his name on the very short list of those who have done this in four different decades. Pretty likeable, mellow guy.
Foot inspection back at the car revealed three black toenails and an oblong blister the size of a quarter on the side of my left heel; think I got it back on the AT with all the weird foot angles and dancing about (I’ll spare you the photo). I never did find the phantom stones in my shoes.
The whole race was a lot less intense than Ironman, until the last eight miles, which began to approach those other long-race experiences. What made it particularly challenging for me was that it’s only one event the entire time, so the muscles don’t get a break by propelling you in different ways. There is only running.
Final time was 9:41:14 with an average pace of 11:35 per mile. My only goal was to finish, so that’s a win, but I ended up placing in the top third, which was fun to see. The winner, by contrast finished in 5 hours 56 minutes at a pace of 7:07 per mile; an alien from a different universe, if you ask me.
Mark, the race veteran on the bus, told me that now that I’ve run it once, I’ll know what to expect, which will be good for shaving 20-40 minutes off my time next year. Next Year. Yeah, we’ll see….
Perseverance – The Takeaways
Whether it’s running an ultra, or anything else in life, here are some of the takeaways about perseverance from this experience.
Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. Do all that you can to get ready. Paraphrasing Vince Lombardi: ‘The will to prepare is as important as the will to win.’ Test your pacing strategy, know from practice what clothes to wear, how much to eat, what you can drink so you can keep going. Get into the details, do the homework, put in the miles. Treat the longer runs as full-on rehearsals to fine tune everything. There’s nothing like solid preparation to give you the confidence you need to succeed.
Entertain doubt and expect problems. Ahead of any big endeavor, it’s natural for doubt to rear its head. The trick is to not let a little fear immobilize you; acknowledge it but don’t look at it as a reason to quit. Instead see doubt as a prompting to double down on your preparation.
It’s also rare that problems don’t crop up, so expect that they will. There will be ice in your water cup, rocks on the trail, and phantom stones in your shoes. You will stumble. Mentally preparing yourself to deal with setbacks is the first step to overcoming them.
Pace yourself. What’s that they say? “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Literally. If you want to go the distance, sprinting up the hills or blowing by the water points is not sound strategy. Sometimes walking, a pause for a good stretch, or rest are what is needed most. Have a plan, measure your effort, stick with your program, and keep going.
Find the joy. In the midst of it all, look for reasons to be happy, to share positive thoughts, to revel in the experience. Whether it was fist-bumping Mr. Incredible, high-fiving spectators, or joking with disbelieving residents, whatever path you are traveling, look for ways to have a little fun. In lifting the spirits of others, your own morale will get a boost. Also: don’t forget to (privately) pat yourself on the back once in a while – you’ve earned it.
Focus on execution and benefit. The bulk of this post came from my own personal notes written soon after the race during a period of reflection. What strikes me years later as I re-read them is that there is very little mention of pain, discomfort, or cost. Especially in the moment, there is little to gain by complaining about the effort required, the steepness of the trail, or all the things you could be doing instead.
It’s easier to keep going if you spend your time thinking about the ground already covered, how you are sticking to your plan (or adjusting it), and what specifically you will do next to stay on the path. Discomfort is a distraction.
Take it one mile at a time. Or even just focus on making it to the next intersection. Whatever the big goal, focus on the little ones right in front of you. Meet enough of those, and eventually you’ll find yourself at the finish line. This is just one of many ways to train your brain to find the courage to continue even when you feel like quitting.
Why do people do things like ultra marathons? There are many reasons, but a big one for me is that doing hard things gives you the confidence and poise to be able to do hard things.
In dealing with difficulty, the mind-muscle becomes more able to deal with adversity, react to change, and embrace the discipline required to prepare for and carry out challenging tasks.
From that capacity comes self confidence and a sense of calm in facing whatever comes next. You develop an inner reserve and an underlying feeling that whatever it is, “You can do this.”
Friends joked with me about what my plans would be for my 60th and 70th birthdays. Maybe I should have thought twice about the idea of tying number of miles directly to number of years before announcing my intentions to run 50!
I do have to admit though, re-reading this four years after the race kind of has my heart rate elevated a little bit. Will I do another one? Let’s just say I won’t rule out the possibility….
C&O Canal By E.B. Thompson, photographer – National Park Service Historic Photograph Collection; E.B. Thompson Collection. Catalog No. HPC-000060, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5767014
Forrest Gump look-alike – By Richie S from Brooklyn, NY, United States (New York Comic Con 2016 – Forrest Gump) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons